By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
The ending of Quadrophenia was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news last June that Material Issue's guitarist, singer and songwriter Jim Ellison, had been found dead at 31, slumped over a moped in the garage of his Chicago home. Apparently distraught over a recent breakup, Ellison was the victim of carbon-monoxide poisoning in what was eventually ruled a suicide. But it's the movie image of Jimmy instead of that sad real-life picture of Jim that stays with me as I contemplate Material Issue's fourth (and, by necessity, last) album.
Telecommando Americano consists of 11 new tracks that Ellison started and bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko finished, as well as the six songs from the trio's vinyl-only 1987 debut, thus bookending the band's career. With early roots in Chicago's mid-'80s '60s revival scene, Ellison, like Jimmy, was a mod. Everyone knows that he dressed the part, and the influence of mod heroes such as the Who and the Small Faces is loud and clear on driving, upbeat pop songs such as "She's Going Through My Head," "A Very Good Thing" and "Chance of a Lifetime" from the Material Issue EP. But Ellison also had the strong work ethic, the self-confidence bordering on arrogance, and the love of a good time that characterized the '60s mods. "We think people pay to see someone enjoy themselves onstage," he once told the Chicago Tribune. "We gladly admit to being full of ourselves and thinking we're great, otherwise we wouldn't be doing what we're doing."
This was an attitude that was very much out of step with the prevailing ethos of the grunge/alt-rock '90s. Although Material Issue scored a respectable hit with International Pop Overthrow, its 1991 Mercury Records debut, it was soon overshadowed by that year's biggest success story, Nirvana's Nevermind. With songs about rape instead of pleasant first dates, and angst and apathy the primary emotions instead of love and longing, the Seattle trio provided a dramatic contrast to the Chicago one--the brutish rockers to Material Issue's refined mods--and Lollapalooza nation clearly preferred the rockers. Though nearly as strong as International Pop Overthrow, 1992's Destination Universe and 1994's Freak City Soundtrack each sold half as much as the album that preceded it, and Material Issue soon found itself without a label.
Ellison was sending unimpressive tapes of new songs to Chicago critics by early 1995, but none of those seems to have surfaced on Telecommando Americano. Songs such as "Satellite," "Young American Freak" and "2 Steps" boast Ellison's usual knack for indelible hooks, with big sing-along choruses and deft melodies, but now they are driven home by new instruments such as piano, slide guitar, analogue synthesizer and xylophone. The truth is, they're every bit as strong and memorable as the modern-rock radio staples "Valerie Loves Me," "What Girls Want" and "Diane."
In retrospect, Kurt Cobain and Ellison had a lot in common beneath their surface differences: Both were incurable romantics who idealized perhaps unobtainable standards for love and relationships, and they may have paid the ultimate price for that. A lot of critics dismiss Ellison's lyrics as more trite rock crap about girls and cars, but they miss the poignant fact that the objects of his desire were almost always out of reach. In "976-LOVE," he says that phone sex is a poor substitute for the love you can't get, while in "Off the Hook," Ellison discovers that his sweetheart is giving him a permanent busy signal.
Not that I think we should make too much out of any of that. As evidenced by their posthumous examination of Cobain, college English majors, armchair psychiatrists and rock critics can't resist the temptation to seek answers about the artist's end in his lyric sheets. But those people hardly notice that the mood of the music rarely jibes with the mood of the lyrics.
There's a palpable joy in every note of Telecommando Americano, revealing just how much singing or picking up the guitar were life-affirming acts for Ellison. Listening to his last album or Nirvana's From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is energizing and makes me happy to be alive. I hear the sound of talented, if troubled, artists drowning out the voices of nihilism with a blast of feedback or a ringing power chord. But then, I've always believed that Jimmy jumped off that scooter.